Why the Mayor of Copenhagen Wants to Get Into the Marijuana Business

He sees it as the only way for the Danish capital to get a grip on its huge Cannabis trade.

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The city of Copenhagen should be growing its own weed, said its mayor last week. According to Social Democrat Frank Jensen, the Danish capital can only get a grip on its huge trade in Cannabis if the state itself muscles in and displaces the pushers. Aware that a municipal government peddling its own grass might sound a little crunchy, Jensen is emphasizing the proposal's seriousness. "This isn’t a hippie proposal," he told newspaper Berlingske. "It's being discussed by people in suits and ties."

If the suits alone aren't enough to persuade you, this is how it would work. The municipality of Copenhagen would supervise the growing of marijuana and then sell it at a market-busting price, from five or six outlets across the city. Modeled on pharmacies rather than cafés, the dispensaries would sell a maximum amount of 5 grams at a time, and only to people over 18 who possess Danish health insurance cards.  

The state taking over the pot trade itself may sound unorthodox, but in Nordic countries it has a historical precedent. In Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, the state has been the sole legal purveyor of alcohol for a large chunk of the past 100 years. Copenhagen's reasoning for creating a similar system for cannabis is that if the city plows the profits into drug rehabilitation programs, drug-related crime – and possibly even cannabis use – should fall.

As things stand, Copenhagen is already a major weed market, albeit an illegal one. Freetown Christiania, an "autonomous neighborhood" with hippie roots housed in a former barracks, has long been a major center for cannabis dealers, (along with some other sites). Despite occasional crackdowns, police have estimated that the value of weed traded in Denmark could be up to 1 billion kroner (around $185 million), which pushes credulity in a country of under 6 million people.

Some of that cash is earned by some nasty gangs, including those grey eminences of the Scandinavian underworld, the Hell's Angels. To critics of prohibition, these gangs are partly the state's creatures, bolstered by past crackdowns on use that failed to stop people smoking but still scared off small-time dealers in favor of a rougher, more organized breed. Mayor Jensen is now determined to undercut these gangs and thus render them irrelevant, with cheaper, cleaner weed that comes with an official stamp.

Don't let Denmark's tolerant reputation persuade you that all this is already a done deal, however. Cannabis legalization has been a political football kicked back and forth between Copenhagen’s government and national authorities for a while now, and the drug is a consistent controversial headline-maker in the country. Right up to this past week, major raids to prevent Danes exporting hash were still being carried out. On February 25, a Copenhagen clinic advising on medical marijuana was closed by authorities, though in that case it was really staff's harmful advice about ditching chemotherapy that spurred their closure. Municipalities around Copenhagen are skeptical, as are the Swedes who, now just 15 minutes away from the city’s suburbs via the Øresund Bridge, fear local weed use could spike. 

There's a certain head-in-the-sand quality to this reaction. Just as Copenhagen's pubs fill with drunken Swedes on the weekends, profiting from Denmark’s less stringent alcohol laws, so is Copenhagen a key source for weed smokers across southern Sweden already. In the face of strong resistance, Mayor Jensen might not be able to push his municipal weed plan through right now, but it's increasingly seeming like a question of when, not if, a plan will pass.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Mandias.

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